Out Here in the Heartland: Writing the Working Class

I’m reading Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. Early in the book, when Smarsh is tracing the courtship and eventual marriage of her grandparents in rural Kansas, I hit a passage that I just have to read to my wife. “She’s talking about our people,” I say to Cathy, and then I read: During the wheat harvest of 1977, when Betty was thirty-two and Arnie forty-five, Betty drove every evening from her full-time job as a subpoena officer at the Sedgwick County courthouse in downtown Wichita to Arnie’s farm. [...]

By |2019-01-07T08:02:18-04:00January 7th, 2019|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Story Starters for the New Year

Here we are on the cusp of a new year, a time for resolutions and new beginnings. If you’re a writer, it’s time to set your sights on the projects ahead of you. With that in mind, I offer up these ten starters for anyone who likes to tell stories, whether you call yourself a fiction writer, a memoirist, or an essayist.   A stranger arrives. Stories are about the days unlike any others, and one way to get characters involved in something interesting is to have them take notice of a stranger. What is it about that stranger that [...]

By |2018-12-31T08:08:02-04:00December 31st, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

From Our House to Your House: A Christmas Eve Story

This is my Christmas Eve blog post, and I want to use it to thank all of you who bless me—friends, family members, students, and those who read what I write, particularly those regular readers of this blog. To be honest, it sometimes gets tough to come up with new posts, but I keep trying just in the event that something I say might prove useful to you and your writing. I’d also like to use this post to ask you to be mindful of those for whom this time of year is difficult. With that in mind, I offer [...]

By |2018-12-24T05:34:00-04:00December 24th, 2018|Uncategorized|4 Comments

Let Your Stories Be a Little Wild

For the better part of my youth, my father, and then later I, would go into the woods on our eighty-acre farm in southeastern Illinois and cut a cedar which would serve as our Christmas tree. Needless to say, it was always a tree whose branches had grown according to nature’s will, which is to say it wasn’t a pine that had been sheared and shaped to form the perfect upside-down ice cream cone that the tree farms sold. Our cedars could be a little wild, a little unpredictable, just like a good story. We have to resist the urge [...]

By |2018-12-17T07:38:48-04:00December 17th, 2018|Uncategorized|4 Comments

Context and Subtext: Making Dialogue Count

Last night, Cathy and I were driving up I-71 on our way into Columbus for a holiday party, and she was whistling “Let It Snow.” She stopped and said, “When you whistle, do you blow out, or do you suck in?” “I blow out,” I said, “but when I first learned to whistle, I sucked in.” We rode along in silence for a while. Then I said, “I could never whistle with a blade of grass between my thumbs.” “I couldn’t do that either,” she said, “and I never learned how to whistle with my fingers in my mouth.” I [...]

By |2018-12-10T07:11:21-04:00December 10th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Persistence in Spite of Evaluation

Welcome to the end of the semester, that time when desperation is palpable among my undergraduate students, and who knows, maybe even my MFA students, too, but they’re too cool to show it. Relax, I want to tell everyone. You’ll get everything done, and you’ll do it well, or maybe not so well, but you’ll do it, and that’s the important thing. It’s the effort that’s most valuable. The result is, for the most part, immaterial. Here’s the thing no teacher should ever say, but I’m going to say it anyway. Those final grades? When it comes to a life [...]

By |2018-12-02T10:25:34-04:00December 2nd, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

Turning Writing Problems into Opportunities

Cathy and I were watching one of those holiday baking shows on the Food Network last night. The final challenge in this episode was to make a cream puff Christmas tree. In the midst of the preparation, the host threw a curve ball at the contestants. They would also have to make a chocolate topper for their trees. Isn’t that the way it always goes? You’re moving along with a plan—let’s say you think you know exactly where your story or novel or poem or essay is going—and then, bam, you run up against a challenge you didn’t see coming. [...]

By |2018-11-26T04:01:23-04:00November 26th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments


After struggling to complete my junior year of college, I withdrew from school, went back to southeastern Illinois, and got a job as a pressman in a tire repairs manufacturing plant. I ran presses that molded rubber into plugs or patches. Day after day—eight hours a day, and sometimes ten—I loaded my press with slabs of rubber or sheets of patches, and “cooked” them until they were done. Unloading each batch of plugs was the worst part of the job. I wore protective sleeves on my forearms and two pair of cotton gloves on my hands. I had to tip [...]

By |2018-11-19T04:15:00-04:00November 19th, 2018|Uncategorized|4 Comments

Subtext: The Story beneath the Story

Our living is full of subtext. In a work of fiction or nonfiction, a writer is wise to pay attention to Henry James’s advice: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” The writer’s job is to know the story taking place beneath the observable story. Often the resonance of a piece comes from the moment in which the deeper story emerges. Perhaps, its appearance startles the main character—suddenly someone knows something previously unrecognized, whether deliberately or ignorantly. At other times, the awareness belongs to the reader who now knows something the main character still doesn’t. No [...]

By |2018-11-12T03:29:03-04:00November 12th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

The Surprising Image: A Writing Prompt

In advance of this week’s midterm election, I find myself recalling an Election Day from my childhood. I must have been somewhere between five and seven because we still lived on our farm in southeastern Illinois. These were the years in the aftermath of the farming accident that cost my father both of his hands and turned him into an angry man. I have wonderful memories of my childhood, but I also have memories of my father’s temper and the rage he brought into our home. To add to the difficulties, this was around the time that my mother lost [...]

By |2018-11-05T07:54:09-04:00November 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments